Wednesday, March 24, 2010

America the beautiful

Think of it as the effect of a grinding recession crossed with the epicurean tastes of young people as obsessed with food as previous generations were with music and sex. Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese. (Jennifer Bleyer, “Hipsters on food stamps,” Salon, 15 March 2010)

The more spirited always look sick to the more beaten-over: sex, drugs, and rock and roll

As someone who believes depressions are self-willed phenomena that arise owing to mass discomfort with prosperity, I think the author here is playing with fire in her baiting us into considering students'/recent graduates' foodie-habits as akin to a previous generations' "self-indulgent" immersion in sex and music. When we're looking for scapegoats for societal selfishness, our first thought is already to turn to the youth, owing to their so well representing/essentializing growth, presumption, ambition (or if you prefer, rampant self-indulgence, elder-disrespect, and narcissism).

Still, THIS IS the kind of forum to manifest -- if weren't already aware of it -- that we've become obsessed with explaining any seeming extravagance as MOSTLY really about responsibility and clear thinking: It's a good thing, 'cause it means they care about their health, and will prove less of a burden in the long-term; It's good, 'cause it means they care about the environment, responsible engagement with fragile earth.

Why it is (primarily) good, to me, IS actually that it means kids won't default too readily to eating food they don't enjoy. They take as much pleasure in their ongoing food adventures as the more sickly do in their (in truth -- and whatever the poverty) mostly masochistically motivated, revenge-avoidance moved consumption of gruel. They can't be cowed/reprimanded away from enjoying life, and it is in THIS spirit that we might one day find that such things like depressions cease to be. I really believe this.

If we won't let them have their 60s, may they at least ably find their way through us.

- - - - -

I am one of the subjects of Jennifer Bleyer's recent article about hipsters on food stamps. I am writing to address the particular sort of ire that this article drew toward people like me -- educated, unemployed, 20- to 30-somethings who work in creative industries. Much of this vitriol is based on certain assumptions that I would like to address.

While organic and local foods seem like luxury items to many, it's important to understand that cheap food is the result of government subsidies while local farmers get little to no assistance. Cheap food is the real extravagance. My interest in food stems from my having to care for a diabetic father, and good food is the only form of healthcare I have access to. Even when I was working full time for a publishing company, I received no benefits, and paid an average of $2,500 to Uncle Sam every tax season despite wages that were meager by any American standard.

[. . .]

I can tell you that many of the artists I know in Baltimore work as dishwashers, baby sitters, house cleaners, movers and dog walkers. They temp, sling coffee and freelance. They teach inner-city kids and counsel rape victims to make ends meet. They come from all walks of life and from all parts of the country, they are black, white, Asian and Latino, and all of them struggle to varying degrees. What makes them less deserving of assistance when they need it than anyone else who qualifies, and why is it such a travesty that food stamp recipients have access to quality, healthy food?

[. . .]

By the way, a whole rabbit at Lexington Market is $10, feeds at least four people, and is healthier than factory-farmed chicken (around $6 for a whole one at the same market).

(Gerry Mak, “A hipster on food stamps responds,” Salon, 17 March 2010)

Full Disclosure

I have reported all of my income. I receive no significant help from my parents (they paid for college, so I wouldn't expect any more from them even if they had the means). The Department of Human Resources in Baltimore has my social security number, and they know my employment history.

As for food, I generally don't even buy organic or local. I try when I can, and usually that's with my own cash. Mostly though, I eat sardines out of a can, which are sustainable and high in omega-3s. I eat sweet potatoes, which are cheap and nutritious. I sometimes eat chicken that I buy at the halal market for about $2.99/lb. I eat a lot of vegetables, mostly not organic, but I try to get stuff that looks good and fresh.

I am only a hipster in that I make art in my spare time. I am not good enough to have sold anything yet. For most of my professional career, I have been paid to write and edit. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is in dire straits, which is why I find myself barely employed. (Gerry Mak, response to post)

This is how you portray yourself here:

“My interest in food stems from my having to care for a diabetic father, and good food is the only form of health care I have access to.”

Further, you now make clear that you eat food that is "cheap and nutritious"-- rather than cheap, nutritious, and DELICIOUS.

This is how you are portrayed in the article:

"I'm sort of a foodie, and I'm not going to do the 'living off ramen' thing," he said, fondly remembering a recent meal he'd prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes. ‘I used to think that you could only get processed food and government cheese on food stamps, but it's great that you can get anything."

That is, in your response you're all of a sudden EXCLUSIVELY a foodie out of necessity/responsibility, whereas in the article we had you as a foodie in good part out of a disdain for the paltry and a preference for the magnificient -- you were in it for its music and sex, that is.

You might be well protecting yourself, but I really wish you'd left room for challenging people to question if finding every means to enjoy life is a sign that you are spoiled, that you are in some way irresponsible for dining on rabbit, sweet potatoes and butter, while so many wish you'd content yourself with 100% life-discomfort and gruel. For some of us, the best way to be socially responsible is to show that YOU NEED NOT let regressing, punishment-minded elders bully you into demonstrating you're just as wary of lust-for-life, of seeming spoiled, as everyone else these days. And don't kid yourself: even if your in-truth only occasional hipster ways lead you away from being an embarrassing failure as an artist toward some one-day considerable success, don't think "we" still won't expect to see you repentant and modest. "We" want all youth now to be ready to surrender themselves to our own needs, not consolidating themselves firmly away in their own uniquely rich way of life, and this is why we're in the business of trying to starve you out right now. If your instinct is not to tell us to fuck off right now, to protect your right to life of HAPPINESS AND PLEASURE!, you'll eventually find someone else more spoiled than you to single out and bully, and so America becomes one more person toward the barren, mean, and grasping.

- - - - -

The Entitlement Generation

Food stamps and other forms of public assistance are intended to be a last-ditch safety net for people truly in need. California's food stamp statute, for example (Welf. & Inst. Code 18900) states in the first line that its purpose is to combat "hunger, undernutrition, and malnutrition" among low-income people. In other words, food stamps (and welfare) are supposed to provide truly needy people with a last line of defense. College-educated 20- and 30-somethings hardly fit into that scheme.

I'm guessing that most of the "hipsters" who are using food stamps have a lot more options in life than the average food stamp applicant. They have parents they can move back in with. They are mobile enough that if they can't find work as a light technician in a Manhattan art house, they can move to Jersey and sling coffee or tend bar. They could even (gasp!) get one of those jobs that we're always told Americans won't take, like janitor, hotel maid, etc.

It's the idea that our tax dollars are being used to subsidize a lifestyle that bothers people, not the use of food stamps for healthy food. The idea that some people feel that they're entitled to live in the hip enclaves of their chosing, work in their ideal field, and live their lifestyle no matter what the cost, even if it means suckling off the public teat to do it. That's not how the real world works. You lose a job, sometimes you gotta move, change fields, downgrade, scrimp, and yes, eat ramen for a few months.

It's deeply troubling that we have raised a generation that views it as their right to burden already overstressed systems in order to continue to live in the style to which they've grown accustomed (or, more likely, into which they were born).

One final point: it is the height of arrogant ignorance for a 20-something art student to assert that "food stamp-using foodies might be applauded for demonstrating that one can, indeed, eat healthy and make delicious home-cooked meals on a tight budget." I'm sure struggling families around the country are deeply grateful to Autumn and Skyler for showing them the folly of their ways. (N1063W, response to post)

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll!: where art thy former (drop-out) defenders now?

And I saw in my path a many-mouthed beast, which went by the name of GLUTTONY; and another draped-over in silk, pearls, and toy-poodle encumbrances, which went by the name of EXTRAVAGANCE; and another adrift in endless hours of artful posings, set for endless hours more, that went by the name of IDLENESS -- and I knew God would be displeased if I failed to ground to the dirt, every last spoiled-rotten one of them.

The American left? Who knew?

Links: Hipsters on food stamps (Salon)

A hipster on food stamps responds (Salon)

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